March 20th, 1924

Virginia Passes Eugenical Sterilization Act

Eugenics, named for the Greek word meaning “well-born,” is a selective breeding philosophy that seeks to eliminate “undesirable” traits by preventing certain kinds of people from reproducing. Sir Francis Galton developed the term in 1883, and described eugenics as “the study of the agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations either physically or mentally.” As eugenics gained widespread support throughout the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century, states began to authorize doctors to forcibly sterilize their patients.

Harry Laughlin, a leader in the eugenics movement, drafted a Model Eugenical Sterilization Law that Virginia adopted and enacted on March 20, 1924. The law, which allowed for the forced sterilization of people confined to state institutions as a “benefit both to themselves and society,” was passed on the same day that the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 became law. The Racial Integrity Act required the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics to record a racial description of every newborn baby, and outlawed marriages between “white” and “non-white” partners. Together, the laws sought to “purify the white race.”

When the Supreme Court upheld Virginia’s Eugenical Sterilization Act in Buck v. Bell in 1927, Virginia’s law became a model for the rest of the country and facilitated the forced sterilization of more than sixty thousand men and women nationwide. Children as young as ten years old were targeted for sterilization. Later, Virginia’s law was co-opted by Nazi Germany and relied upon as precedent for the Nazis’ race purity programs. Though eugenical theory was criticized after World War II, forced sterilization persisted long after in the United States.